Experimentation makes sound sense

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Alexis Ffrench says there should be no distinction between music and music technology

Music technology today is incredible. Kids can create their own music at school, at home on their computers, share it with friends, listen to it on iPods. There is an ease and fluency here very different from that associated with the classical music tradition, in which fluency is only achieved after the hard work of learning to read music and master an instrument.

But music education in this country remains centred on western classical music and notation, with computer technology too often seen as an exotic adjunct, not really integrated into the subject area at all. Many teachers have problems with the technology itself: there isn't any co-ordinated teacher training in this area.

As a result there is often discrimination in favour of pupils who can read music, and a great inequality is produced, with non-score reading students unable to gain ground in the classroom. I believe that, in music, fluency should take precedence over literacy. As teachers, our primary concern should be to arm children with the tools to express themselves and not to impose rigid and stifling notions of form, structure and other elemental considerations that restrict innate creativity.

Unfortunately, children's musical education can be affected from the start by their own preconceptions and those of their parents and teachers about what is relevant to them. Music as a subject is too often seen as a middle-class Anglo-Saxon preserve, and not relevant to those from different backgrounds. Even today there are teachers who label their students and map out what they are capable of rather than looking on them as a blank page.

I was very lucky myself, as a British-born child of Jamaican descent, to have a teacher when I was five who had no limit to the expectations he had of me. So neither I nor my parents had any pre-conceived ideas about what I should be doing. I went on to study at the Purcell School of Music, the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall school of music, and became a concert pianist. But when I was young there were still people who assumed that because I was black I must be able to run fast. There are plenty of black sporting role models, but not many in classical music.

As teachers we have to allow students to find out what they can do. But first we have to get through to them. My experience, with inner-city children in particular, is that they adopt a kind of bravura like a suit of armour to protect themselves. It's difficult for a teacher to break through that, because it leaves them feeling vulnerable. We need a curriculum which is relevant and encourages them to find their own creativity.

Hip-hop artist Dizee Rascal got into a lot of trouble at school, but he had a music teacher who encouraged him to experiment with his own kinds of music. He went on to win the Mercury Prize. There must be many other cases of difficult individuals who nevertheless have a skill but who, because of an inflexible curriculum, have not been allowed to flourish. Those students should be able to develop their abilities and get a qualification through their endeavour. It is, therefore, vitally important that our GCSEmusic curriculum resonates with them in positive ways, and that there is effective bridging from key stage 3.

It is in my role as head of music technology that I have seen the greatest discrepancy in the approach to teaching music. I do not draw a distinction between music and music technology, I think they are one and the same. And I am not suggesting that we dispense with notation - my piano pupils have to learn it in the usual way. But there should be more emphasis on aural rather than notational work in the classroom. We can learn from the experiences of commercial musicians and modern-day practices with new arts technologies to devise a new curriculum for music and technology.

We should encourage students to experiment with different elements of sound, electronic or otherwise, and to pass ideas around so that others can explore them. The results can be surprising and unpredictable. They can collaborate on works using a variety of different disciplines and technologies. One of my students came up with a juxtaposition of musical styles, using a rap musician and a string quartet.

We need to reform our ideas, retrain our ears and explore creative practices to the extent that modern art forms can combine seamlessly - and there will be an audience to support them.

Alexis Ffrench is a concert pianist and head of keyboard studies and music technology at Uppingham School, Rutland. He was talking to Tim Homfray

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